Bullying Behavior: Nut allergy triggers both physical, social bad reactions

October 2016 Posted in Community, School

By Kristine Thomas

If Robert Frost Elementary School fourth-grade student Teagen Cain could make his severe nut allergy disappear, he would do it in a second. However, he knows there isn’t a medical cure and it’s not something he will outgrow.

While he can’t make his allergy vanish, what he can do – with the help of his brothers and his parents, Tom and Lydia Cain – is to educate people about nut allergies. For people like Teagen, exposure to nuts and nut oils can be fatal.

Being different, though, has additional challenges. Since first grade, Teagen said he has been the target of bullies. 

“When people say mean stuff, it doesn’t get to me,” Teagen said. “I deal with it all the time.”

During the first week of school, a student told Teagen he was going to corner him in the boys’ bathroom and rub peanut butter on his face.

Well, if that were to happen, Teagen would most likely go into anaphylactic shock, his parents said. It could be fatal.

On Facebook, Lydia wrote, “After 2 years of Teagen being bullied and having death threats, Teag has been asking me to quit my job. He wants me to be able to volunteer or be there if anything happens.”

Lydia works at Mark Twain Elementary School as a special projects and volunteers coordinator. 

Here’s an example of how sensitive Teagen is to nuts and nut-based products. Let’s say a student eats a peanut butter sandwich and goes to recess without washing his hands. He and a few friends play basketball. If Teagen were to touch the basketball, he could have an allergic reaction. If a student ate nuts on the opposite side of the cafeteria, Teagen also could have a reaction.

“When I have an allergic reaction, my eyes start to swell close and my mouth gets swollen,” Teagen, 9, said. “My eyes get tired and puffy and feel like there is a lot of weight on them. It’s hard for me to breath and like I can only have little gaps of air.”

More times than they like to recall, Tom and Lydia have received phone calls from their son’s teacher or principal that he has had an allergic reaction.

Teagen knows the drill. If he is having a mild reaction, the first thing he needs to do is ask his teacher for Benadryl, followed by his inhaler. If that doesn’t work, he takes a second Benadryl, If that fails, he is given an Epi-pen. Depending on the severity of the reaction, he may need to go to the Epi-pen immediately.

Lydia and Tom said what’s most challenging is trying to make life as normal as possible without Teagen living in fear or missing school.

When Teagen attended Eugene Field, it was a nut-restricted school, meaning no nuts or nut products were allowed on campus. 

At Robert Frost, all classrooms in the fourth-grade mezzanine are a restricted nut zone. Each morning, there is a review of what students have in their lunch. If a lunch contains a nut product, the lunch is taken to the office where the student will go for the lunch or the student can trade out nut products for a school lunch. 

Tom said he and Lydia just learned nut products will be taken to the school office. That is a new procedure this year.

“We do not agree with this since the nurse is in the office and the office is a common area. Last year, nuts were not allowed in the office,” Tom said.

The third and fifth-grade mezzanines, are nut awareness zones. The rules for this zone include washing hands, no trading food, wiping down tables and eating at designated tables.

Nuts are not allowed in common areas including the library, gym, music room, recess areas and the lobby.

Tom and Lydia Cain both said they have noticed the difference in having a school where nuts were restricted like Eugene Field, and a school were nuts are allowed in some areas like Robert Frost. 

As a third-grader at Robert Frost, Lydia said Teagen missed about three days of school a month due to his allergy.

“Although he was at a new school last year, he had the same diagnosis,” Lydia said. “I felt like we took three steps backward and made little progress.”

Robert Frost Principal Leslie Roache said the law restricts her from sharing any information contained in a student’s record. She did share the school has a new Health and Wellness page on its website with its nut management process is posted.

She has made two “all calls” to parents about nut allergies and procedures. Suellen Nida, the school nurse, and Roache call fourth-grade families who send nut products to school. Roache said there are signs about nuts posted throughout the school and all the staff has been trained to use an Epi-pen.

Students also are being taught about bullying and how to report it. If a student has been bullied, Roache said the district utilizes a threat assessment team made up of administrators, counselors and specialists to review and respond. 

In talking with their sons, Lydia and Tom said shared they have not yet received lessons about handling bullying. They are concerned about how the process.

“Teagen has been threatened to be killed twice by the same child this year that also threatened to kill him last year. That child has also threatened another student multiple times this year that he is also going to die,” Tom said.

“So far the student is still at school and last week tried talking to Teagen in the hallway. Not much of anything other than loss of recess has happened. Personally, to Lydia and I, someone telling my child they are going to bring nuts and kill him is the same as saying ‘I am bringing a gun to school.’ But for some reason it appears the school treats and views death by a firearm is different than death by an allergy.”

From their research, Tom and Lydia have learned about incidents across the U.S. where children with allergies are the targets of bullies. The bullying isn’t limited to kids picking on Teagen.

Lydia has had parents complain to her about having to adjust what their child eats because of her son’s allergy. Tom and Lydia understand it may be a hassle for parents to make school lunches without nut products. but they hope other parents explain to their children the severe risks of food allergies.

The reality is that food allergies can result in death.

Like other parents, the Cains want Teagen to have a public education in a safe environment. They also want his childhood to be as close to normal as every other 9-year-old boy’s.

“People do not see what we have to go through with having a child that is not invited to birthday parties or outings with his friends like most children are,” Tom said.

“He is aware of it and says he is fine but you can see it does bother him. Sometimes he cannot fight back his tears and just breaks down and asks us why he can’t be like everyone else. He says it is not fair I do not get to have fun with my friends.”

Thomas, who is in fifth-grade, said he keeps an eye out for his younger brother. When he and other friends stand up to the bullies, they, too, become targets. Thomas has been kicked and pushed. Tom and Lydia said more than once they have found nuts thrown into their yard by vandals.

Lydia said Teagen doesn’t like to leave their house because of his concerns. Teagen said he’s OK with being home. Any adventure outside the house takes a great deal of planning. The hardest part for Teagen is knowing he cannot do “certain things” – like go to sporting events.

“Most stuff I want to do, I can’t,” Teagen said. “I always have to have my medical bag with me.”

Teagen wishes kids wouldn’t be unkind. By speaking out and educating people about nut allergies, perhaps that wish will come true, he and his parents hope.

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